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Bitch School: When Steely Dan’s Walter Becker met Spinal Tap, it did not go well…
09.07.2017
01:28 pm
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Walter Becker passed away last weekend. I’ve been listening to Steely Dan a ton all summer long, so the loss hit a little harder than usual. The news elicited the usual round of condolences and encomiums from fans across the world, a group that included one that maybe Becker’s fans weren’t waiting for as much. Michael McKean, lately killing it in Better Call Saul and of course (as David St. Hubbins) the lead singer of the world’s most preposterous heavy metal band, Spinal Tap, reminded his Twitter audience that Tap and the Dan did indeed once cross paths:
 

 
Michael McKean is probably the most musically gifted of the Spinal Tap guys—remember, he was once briefly a member of an actual band, namely the Left Banke, and his father was one of the co-founders of Decca Records. So on some level it makes sense that he would be the one to think of including Walter Becker in Spinal Tap’s 1992 album Break Like the Wind in the form of some silly-ass “technical notes.” That album was quite a star-studded affair, in fact, featuring the contributions of Jeff Beck, Dweezil Zappa, Joe Satriani, Slash, and Cher. I’m betting McKean was on the phone a lot that year.

Becker’s notes make up one “panel” of the fold-out lyrics sheet on the CD release. You can see a picture of the whole shebang on the Australian CD release. The entirety of Becker’s account of “the astonishing Crosley Phase Linear Ionic Induction Voice Processor System” runs exactly four paragraphs, in which space Becker earnestly touts the invention of one “Graehame Crosley” which functions by “measuring “the flow of ionic muons” from the singer’s vocal output, for which the singer is obliged to “wear on his person a number of small balance plates which will offset the fields created by various inanimate objects on his body at the time of the recording.” The duly muon-measured vocal stream, in the case of this album, was then captured on “the huge BBC 16 channel cassette recorder which the band had schlepped over from David’s home studio.”
 

 
Not surprisingly, Becker absolutely nails the particular tedium and self-importance familiar to anyone who has perused such technical accounts on album liner notes, but was careful to sprinkle in a few unmissable gags to get the sought-after chuckles from Tap’s fan base. But this would not be a Steely Dan story if there weren’t some grousing and bad feeling somewhere. In the April 1992 issue of Metal Leg, the exhaustive Steely Dan newsletter that existed from 1987 through 1994, Becker wrote an account of submitting those “technical notes” to the Tap crew. His primary contact was “Mike McKeon” (sic), and according to Becker, Spinal Tap wanted Becker’s text primarily for use “in a throwaway fashion, more as a design element than anything else”—which seems rather unlikely when you think about it, you don’t go to Walter Fucking Becker for the equivalent of musical lorem Ipsum text. But Becker was “perhaps erring on the optimistic side insofar as a good outcome was concerned” because the Spinal Tap guys pared down Becker’s text somewhat, indeed omitting an entire paragraph dedicated to an account of dealing with the Crosley System’s inability to deal with a vocalist who had previously undergone a brass kidney transplant (this being Derek Smalls).

Having his text fucked with in this manner seems to have really set Becker off, who tetchily informs Metal Leg that by being able
 

to set the record straight, I feel that I may yet snatch victory from the clutches of disaster, especially since your circulation may well exceed the sales of the doleful Tap disc, once we correct for the high percentage of non-readers or remedial readers in the ranks of Tap purchasers, many of whom bought the CD by mistake anyway, thinking it was either a) an actual heavy metal album, or b) funny.

 
Whoa! All you angels up there in heaven, do make sure to not get on Walter Becker’s bad side!

It could be that this minor conflict, such as it is, explains Becker’s noticeable omission from the album’s list of thanked people (the five guest musicians mentioned above all got thanked).
 
Much more after the jump, including Becker’s original, unedited submission to Tap…....
 

READ ON
Posted by Martin Schneider
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09.07.2017
01:28 pm
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Reconsidering Steely Dan
07.25.2011
03:19 pm
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When I was a kid in the 70s, Steely Dan were all over the FM airwaves and I absolutely loathed them. Music for assholes as far as I was concerned.

Punk rock hit when I was 10-years-old. I can assure you that I had about as much time for Steely Dan growing up as I did for the Eagles or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Which is to say, none. I hated them. It was always THEIR albums that they used in high end stereo stores to demonstrate equipment. Although I did give them some cool points when I later realized that they’d gotten their name from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (“Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” a strap-on dildo referred to in the text), I associated them too much with the dreaded middle-of-the-road “AOR” radio format and with middle-aged guys who owned expensive sound systems.

Well, now that I AM a middle-aged guy with an expensive sound system… I must say, boy I was wrong about Steely Dan. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are badass musical geniuses. I simply didn’t know what I was missing out on!

Why the change of heart? Gotta say, it is my audio equipment. I’m a audiophile. I don’t take it to the extremes that some people do, but I do have a good 7.1 surround system and it’s something I derive a lot of pleasure from. The idea of low quality MP3s horrifiy me. I have an iPod, but I haven’t charged it for years.

A few years ago, I became aware that there was an underground coterie of amateur and professional audio enthusiasts who were lovingly capturing and restoring quadraphonic mixes from the 70s. Hundreds of albums came out on quad LPs, 8-tracks and reel to reel tapes. These hi-fi maniacs, to whom I am in great debt, go on eBay and elsewhere and hunt these things down. They don’t bid against each other, it’s a cooperative, community thing. There are other guys who restore the old quad equipment. This online community turn out album after album of such high end four-channel audio that it can take your breath away (Note: It’s not 5.1, it’s quad, so on a modern surround system, the center speaker drops out. Low frequencies are still sent to the sub-woofer, though, so it’s more like 4.1, I suppose)

The process, as I understand it, is that they take the 4-channel material into ProTools or a similar audio program and then (usually) turn them in to DVD ISO files which are then normally uploaded to torrent trackers or other file sharing means like Rapidshare or Hotfile. The end user then burns these files as a DVD for use in a DVD player.

But back to Steely Dan. I’ll listen to anything once in multi-channel. Yes, even bands that I’ve always hated, like the Doobie Brothers or Guns-n-Roses, once. Everything merits at least one listen. Some don’t merit two, however.

When a few Steely Dan albums (Countdown to Ecstasy, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic) in quad were offered to me by a friend, I accepted them, but I never burned them to DVDs, they just sat there on my hard drive. Then one day a few months ago, I was watching an episode of Rob Bryden’s Annually Retentive sitcom, which uses “Reelin’ In the Years” as its theme tune and I remembered I had them. And so I burned them, wanting to hear this song in multi-channel audio.

Not sure if it was the mood I was in, the weed I was smoking or maybe just the music itself, but I was soon having a full on out-of-body rock snob musical orgasm. What an idiot I’d been. snubbing Steely Dan for so many years. I was a damned fool!

Maybe it does take a good hi-fi to really appreciate Steely Dan. I’ve been listening to them now quite a bit since then and they’re like the diamond cutters of rock. They really don’t sound like anybody else. Their legendary attention to sonic detail and search for perfection in the studio puts them in a league entirely of their own creation. Their sound is so sleek and so clear, almost crystalline. There is a lot of space around the instrumentation (a hallmark of their sound greatly enhanced by a multi-channel mix) and you can turn their albums up as loud as fuck with very, very little distortion. (Yes, I’m a lousy neighbor…).

If like me, you were a butt-head who always hated Steely Dan, do give them a chance again, you’ll be glad that you did (but not over ear buds or computer speakers, it won’t be the same).
 

 
Below, two clips of Steely Dan in their musical prime on The Midnight Special in 1973:
 

 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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07.25.2011
03:19 pm
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